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Classic and contemporary Belle & Sebastian learn to share a stage in Manchester

21 May 2015, 13:14 | Written by Joe Goggins

Belle & Sebastian are a few hundred metres from where they made their chaotic Manchester debut tonight. The lineup remains largely the same - save for the recent departure of trumpet player Mick Cooke and the not-so-recent, and considerably less amicable, parting of ways with Isobel Campbell - but otherwise, as you’d expect, the differences are myriad.

When they played a stone’s throw away at the Town Hall in December 1997 - one of their first-ever shows outside Scotland - they were besieged by technical problems, as well as a slew of difficulties presented by their decision to play in the round. At their matinee show, keyboard player Beans was apocalyptically hungover and kept a bucket underneath his Hammond organ throughout.

2015 Belle & Sebastian, of course, are a different proposition in just about every respect. They are no longer as shy as they once were, with the old large-scale refusal of interviews and appearances in their own press photography relaxed. They’re joined onstage by a well-drilled array of string and brass players, and the attention to visual detail is staggering; after a short film, "Glasgow 1980", plays them in, they’re introduced to the stage on the huge screen behind them by the model from the cover of their latest full-length, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, as “Matador recording artists Belle & Sebastian” - the signing to the New York label is another recent development.

Back in ’97, Stuart Murdoch would have not long since recovered from the chronic fatigue syndrome that had effectively rendered him housebound for seven years, and whilst he used to reflect his frustrations by fantasising about the mundanities of everyday life, tonight’s opener “Nobody’s Empire” sees him face his illness head-on for the first time. It’s a modern B&S classic, with Murdoch delivering one of his strongest vocal turns to date over a wall of gleaming synths.

There’s always been a little bit of a schism between Jeepster-era Belle & Sebastian - their ‘classic’ material, released up to 2001 - and their more diffuse sound since, but tracks plucked from both eras complement the new songs well tonight. Spacey electro-odyssey “Electronic Renaissance”, plucked from debut Tigermilk, sits comfortably alongside the shiny Eurodisco of “Enter Sylvia Plath”, for instance, and when the inevitable invasion of dancers takes place for “The Boy with the Arab Strap”, it’s followed up by synth-driven stompers new and old - “The Party Line” and “Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie”, the latter plucked from ’97 EP 3...6...9 Seconds of Light.

There’s a sprinkling of vintage cuts for good measure, too; “Photo Jenny” makes a rare appearance, as does the always-gorgeous “We Rule the School” as part of a two-track encore, but it’s the songs from Peacetime that really stand out tonight. The perennially-dapper Stevie Jackson delivers an extended version of “Perfect Couples” that’s backed by mesmerising visuals and “The Cat with the Cream” is a string-driven, modern-day update of “The Fox in the Snow”, and it’s the love and care with which the band have presented them - old film footage is being worked into the show depending on which city the band are in, with A Taste of Honey cropping up here in Manchester - that prove their rapport with the fans every bit as much as the now-iconic “Arab Strap” stage invasion.

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